A Travellerspoint blog

July 2012

Tupiza - Red Rock in the Bolivian Southwest

sunny 70 °F
View Altiplano Odyssey on White Buffalo's travel map.

Tupiza June 25 – 27

We arrived earlier than necessary to the bus station, with plenty of time to purchase snacks before paying our 6 bvs tax to board the bus, the cry of the barkers calling you to board their bus but a minor din so early in the morning. Only about 8 people boarded the bus, leaving us thinking it would be a quiet ride to Tupiza. The bus wheeled out of the station right on time only to stop just outside the bus station to load the remaining passengers. It was then we learned that most bus tickets are sold outside the station, thereby enabling passengers to avoid the 1.5 bvs passenger tax levied inside the station proper. Pulling out of Potosi the bus was filled to capacity.

Negotiating our way out of Potosi in a large bus on streets designed for donkey carts took every bit of an hour and finally we made the open road. With a paved road all the way to Tupiza it was a relatively smooth ride, highlighted only by the video entertainment of the movie “Final Destination” a Bolivian B rated movie complete with green slime that attacked and killed its victims punctuated by a series ofgruesome and bloody accidents. Despite the Spanish dialogue Aidan was rapt the entire way.

Dropping out of the high Altiplano, we soon entered a long river valley and with red rock canyons that might just as well have been southern Utah. Tupiza is a nice little Bolivian city of around 20,000 people, bisected by a wide river plain reduced to a small creek in the dry season. The pigs and garbage scavenging the river plain were just a few of the reminders that despite the red rock it is still Bolivia tierra firma.


A ten minute walk across the river and out of town brought us to Hostal Solares, a small hostal neglected by the guide books that is impeccably clean, with really hot showers and laundry service. Being the ignorant gringos that we are, we realized only later that the laundry service was actually the grandma washing our clothes by hand for 10 bvs or about $1.50 per kilo.

_DSC3803.jpg _DSC3764.jpgThat evening we took in the character of the town and I spent a couple of hours street shooting in the warm afternoon light. The next day, our host arranged a five hour horseback ride to some of the larger canyons in the area. Anne and the kids exhibited their suburban roots with a high degree of trepidation at the equine activities ahead. The horses were the mishmash of nags that you might expect, which still left Anne and the kids on pins and needles.P1040408.jpg Our guide Simone seemed more interested in his cell phone than us but fortunately we soon got out of cell range and then he engaged. The canyons in the area really spectacular, with large hoodoos and steep ravines formed in the highly erosive soils. My horse, “Speedy Gonzalez” was an ill-mannered 5 year old that shaped up substantially once I cut thin branch for a quirt. It was a hot, dusty, memorable day with spectacular countryside that evoked fond memories of the many miles I logged on the trusty steed of my youth. P1040437.jpg

The next day, Wednesday, we slept in, made a short hike up to a viewpoint above the town and made preparations for our 5 day tour to the Lagunas, a series of high mountain lakes, and the Salar the world’s largest salt flat.

Posted by White Buffalo 18:50 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Desert Lakes, Volcanoes, and the World´s Largest Salt Flat

5 Day jeep tour through the remote backcountry of southwestern Bolivia

sunny 52 °F

Lagunas and Salar tour June 28 – July 2

At 8:30 am we met our guide Milton, who speaks pretty good English, and Josephina, a classic Bolivian Chollita, complete with boler hat, long black braids, ten children and a warm easy smile.Over the next 5 days we covered 1200 Km of back roads in the southwestern corner of Bolivia ending in the town of Uyuni.


The first day we wound our way up through the desert into the mountains and over a pass at 5,000 meters. Small herds of wild Vicunas peppered the hillsides along with larger herds of llamas. At one time, the Vicuna, prized for their super soft fur, were reduced to less than 5,000 animals. They now estimate that approximately 70,000 live in southwest Bolivia. Milton informed us that shooting a Vicuna carries a mandatory 5 year prison sentence and if you can’t afford an attorney something more like 25. At about 4:00 we pulled into the town of San Pablo de Lipez, a tiny collection of mud brick houses and our hotel, Los Volcanes, one of two nights of deluxe accommodations. We were the only guests in this 4 star hotel in a town of 300 people nearly 100 miles from a town of any size. The service and food were easily the best we’d had in Bolivia.
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The next day we bounced our way over semi-improved roads and rough two-track stopping for lunch at Laguna Celeste, a large lake fed by springs and sparse run-off at the base of Utrunucu Volcano. That evening we pulled into QuetenaChica, a small town populated mostly by llama farmers. Our guide Milton is friends with Miguel, the proprietor of the small hostel, that amounted to a collection of small rooms with no heat, no hot water, and much to Bridget’s dismay a shared bathroom. We arrived early enough to go on a side excursion out to Miguel’s farm to look at some very ancient pictographs and a large cave that had clearly been used by the pre-Incan tribes that peopled the area. Aidan was carrying a set of small binoculars that Miguel thought were just the best thing ever for looking at his llamas. At dinner that evening he approached our table to ask if he could buy them. _DSC4029.jpgThey weren’t expensive, but with most of are trip still ahead of us, we declined and committed to the proposition that we would send him a pair when we returned to the states. By morning, Aidan had fessed up that he really wasn’t that crazy about the binocs anyway so he sold them at a substantial discount to a very pleased Miguel for 300 bvs or about $40.
_DSC4062.jpgThe next morning we were on the road by 6:00 and caught the first light as we wound our way through the mountains. We stopped to look around San Antonio de Lipez, an abandoned mining town that once supported 3,000 miners. Walking through the ruins we came upon a human skull tucked in the corner of a fallen down house, another reminder that Bolivia remains very rough around the edges. Around noon we crossed the boundary into EdwardAvaroa National Park which is a huge park that surrounds the principal Volcanoes and Lagunas of southwestern Bolivia. _DSC4071.jpg

The day was filled with immense vistas and surreal landscapes. We saw rayas, a large ground bird the locals call kiwi, as well as several suri, a medium sized ostrich native to Bolivia.


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the countryside was the amount of water available in nearly every drainage of any size that we crossed. Most of the country we travelled receives not more than 30 millimeters of rain annually and some areas as little as 10 millimeters yet there were creeks, ponds and lakes in relative abundance considering the sparse precipitation. Laguna Colorado was the highlight of the day, a large lake turned deep red by the algae that flourish there framed by several large volcanoes. A thousand or so flamingoes were scattered in bunches around the large lake. Anne and I made a pact to return sometime in November when upwards of 30,000 flamingos are typically found there. Unfortunately, we only spent a couple of hours at the lake. Between the red water, the red volcanoes, and the pink flamingos it is one of the most surreal, and utterly confounding landscapes I have ever had the good fortune of experiencing.
For our third night we were supposed to have deluxe accommodations at El Desierto another 4 star hotel constructed at the base of a mountain with the nearest town of any size more than 100 miles away. Considering our stay the first night at Los Volcanes, we were eagerly awaiting the creature comforts of El Desierto. Unfortunately, the hotel messed up and was over-booked and we were turned away. We were informed that another similar hotel was situated about another 1 ½ hours down the road. It was only about 4 and with no other choice we trundled our way down the 2 track that is the road. Los Flamencos Hotel was situated beneath a large peak with a good sized lake and 500 or so unhappy flamingoes. With the light fading fast I went straight to the lake to photograph the flamingoes in the evening light. You may wonder why a flamingo would be hanging out in a lake half covered with ice at 13,000 feet in the middle of the Bolivian winter. In the summer, there are thousands of birds there but only the strongest ones make the migration to lower altitudes and warmer climes. The weak ones remain in those lakes that are spring fed and don’t completely freeze over.

Once the light was gone, I made my way into the hotel for a hot shower and a 4 star meal. Turns out the four stars were from a bygone era, and there was no hot water, no heat, and composting toilets that had given up their eco-ways some time ago, hence pit toilets. Not that I have anything against a well-constructed out-house. They’re really some of my favorite habitations in the right locale, however, inside my sleeping quarters is not my location of choice. Turns out that once again we were the only ones staying at the hotel, but not because it was undiscovered gem. Miguel’s basic set-up was far superior, but with a roof, and four walls to keep out the winter chill we all did just fine.
We pulled out of town early, catching the sunrise on the road. As we emerged from the mountains and came upon the edge of the Salar, our guide suddenly stopped and took us a short distance off the road. He told us to look closely at the basalt scattered over the desert floor and that we might find some arrow heads from a pre-Incan tribe that lived in the area. Walking randomly about, eyes trained on the many chips that littered the ground we all began finding arrowheads and worked chips. They were everywhere. In less than an hour we had found a couple dozen good quality arrowheads with many others cast off along the way.


That evening we spent our last night in small hostel on the edge of the Salar constructed completely out of salt blocks. All of the furniture was made from salt and even the floors were covered with heavy salt crystals. We arrived early enough to catch the final game of the Euro-Cup, Spain and Italy, which required a contribution of gasoline to the proprietors to get them to turn on the generator at 2:30 instead of the typical 5:00.

We left the Hostal at 5:15 am to catch the sunrise over Incahausi Island, an island made entirely of ancient corral and covered with cactus. As the sun came up there were too many gringos for my liking and I would have rather been out on the salt flat alone but that is the trouble with covering so much ground in so little time. It is difficult to know where a person should spend their time the first go around. 10 days would have been more appropriate for the ground that we covered with a lot more time hiking and less time in the Landcruiser. Next time.
We ended our day in Uyuni, a nothing town on the edge of the Salar dominated by pizzerias and trinket shops for the many gringos that start their tour of the Salarthere. We got a cheap hotel for the shower and a place to hang out for the evening, and bought an overnight train ticket to Ururo leaving the next morning at 1:45 am.

There were too many cosmic photos to scatter amongst the words so here are some of the others from the 5 day trip in no particular order.


Posted by White Buffalo 18:52 Archived in Bolivia Comments (3)

Ururo - Butte meets Bolivia and Quime - Into the Yungas

semi-overcast 70 °F

Ururo – Quime July 3 – 6

We arrived at the Uyuni train station at about 12:30 am and proceeded to wait. In classic Bolivian fashion, there were no signs or other indication of which train to board so we generally followed the herd, found our seats and got settled a few minutes before the train rolled out of the station and then sat idle for another half hour or so. There was no heat on the train, so we pulled out sleeping bags and settled in for the 7 hour ride to Ururo. Anne and the kids were quick to crash while I sat awake watching the ice form on the inside of the windows. Sometime in the wee hours, I managed to fall into a troubled sleep. At one point, I was certain that the train must have left the tracks and set off cross country if only for the lurching back and forth that made it difficult to believe we were actually riding on rails at all. It will be awhile before the bullet train gets to Bolivia.


We pulled into Ururo just about right on time, grabbed our bags and made our way to the taxi stand. Our taxi driver assured us that he knew just where our hotel, San Felipe Real, was located and proceeded to take us on a tour of the city. Fortunately, the price is always set at the outset and after about the third circle it was clear that he had no idea where he was going. He assured us that the hotel we were seeking didn’t exist and took us, barely, to another place. We unloaded at the Residencial Boston, an uninviting old colonial building filled with dingy rooms and no windows. We decided to ditch that and our next cab driver knew where our other hotel was located. It was a lovely old colonial hotel but at $100 a night too rich for our blood. Our third choice was located down near the bus station that was a crazy scene of people, buses, and vendors all milling about in a crush of humanity that reminded me of Manila in the late 80’s. The next hotel was full, so we proceeded on foot to find a place to stay. We finally found a perfectly acceptable hotel with hot showers and clean beds. The only shortcoming was the location on the main square outside the bus station with a constant cacophony of the barkers chanting agua, agua, agua and lapa, lapa, LaPaz. By the time we were settled it was close to noon , and considering the all night train ride, no breakfast, and the impromptu tour of Ururo the kids were on the edge but holding up surprisingly well.

Ururo is on old mining city generally neglected by the guide books but for the fact that it is party central in Bolivia during Carnival. I suspect there are many worthwhile attractions but we were really just looking to get some laundry done prior to our trip to Quime a small town in the mountains. Turns out that laundry service in Bolivia is really only for gringos, and after several hours of searching never did manage to find anyone willing to take on a week’s worth of desert clothes. So the next morning we packed up dirty clothes all and caught a bus to the small town of Konani on the main highway between Ururo and La Paz.

large_1_DSC4721.jpgUntil just a year or so ago, the ride from Konani to Quime was a 12 hour drive up over a 5,000 meter pass on semi-improved dirt road. With the new paved road, it was only a 2 hour drive up over the mountains and down into Quime, a town of about 2,000 perched at the head of a river valley at 13,000 feet. We stayed at the only real hostal in town, Hostal Cobiri or the Hummingbird Ranch operated by Don Marko Louis an ex-patriot botanist from the U.S. that has been living in Quime for the last 35 years after leaving Minnesota with a PhD and way too many student loans. Quime is a genuine Bolivian mountain town, that despite a spectacular setting lacks even the most basic tourist services. Hostal Cobiri sits on the hillside high above town and is really more like a homestay than a hostal. Marko opened his lovely home to guests mostly to provide some company and a little income. I’ve never met a more reluctant hostaleer. But he made his kitchen available, a huge bonus since there isn’t a restaurant in Quime that won’t make you sick.

Marko was delighted to have us, and the first night there he made great pumpkin muffins to satisfy Bridget’s craving for something that reminded her of home. We spent 3 nights at Hostal Cobiri highlighted by 2 days of spectacular hiking where we had the good fortune of spotting 3 Andean Condors. I also saw a Giant Hummingbird which is a hummingbird the size of two small sparrows and another blackish blue one with a typical hummingbird body and a long tail that was easily 5 or 6 inches long and appeared something between miraculous and other-worldly in flight.

Marko was a wonderful host and despite smoking way too much in close quarters we got along famously which had as much to do with his personality and political views best described as a cross between Edward Abbey and Hugo Chavez.

Posted by White Buffalo 19:16 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

La Paz - Bolivia Melting Pot at Full Throttle

semi-overcast 68 °F

La Paz July 7 – 10

We arrived at Quime’s central taxi stand around nine and were directed into the typical 8 person Toyota diesel van. The first sign that the morning might go differently than planned came when a large bus parked along-side of the van with exhaust pouring into our open door. As Anne and I scrambled to get outside for some air the driver jumped. As one of the passengers yelled, “Va, Va, Va”, and the kids, still in the van yelled, “Stop, Stop, Stop” Anne and I jumped in and the van roared off in a haze of diesel smoke. It quickly became clear that our driver had an acute and untreated case of ADHD doing his best to keep the over-taxed van revved to the maximum at all times. It wasn’t quite so bad going up the hill, but once we made the pass at 5000 meters and gravity became his friend our relative safety took on a higher state of urgency. Anne and the kids were completely petrified in the back as we roared around hairpin curves on our way to the plains far below. While it was a hair-raising ride, we arrived in one piece. I pretty well Zenned my way through it while Anne and the kids were completely shell shocked.

Once at Konani, the plan was to flag down one of the many buses headed to La Paz that must stop at the toll station there. We waited for 45 minutes or so, several buses passing through but with no seats to spare. Anne and the kids finally left to find a bathroom while I waited on the side of the road. About five minutes later a large tour bus came by with many seats to spare but Anne and the kids were nowhere in sight and I had to let it go by. After they returned, we waited another hour or so without a spare seat to be found. Finally a van driven by two middle aged fellows stopped and offered us a ride to La Paz for 100 bvs. We gladly jumped in. Within a few miles it quickly became clear that we had jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire. The driver Pedro and his side-kick Roby had clearly been drinking and admitted as much. Roby was hammered, fortunately Pedro was in better shape. They told us that they picked us up because they had just bought the van in Oruro and the owner’s manual was in English and perhaps we could help them figure out the controls.

All went smoothly until Roby started smoking. Fortunately, Bridget was somewhat conditioned after three days with Marko lighting up constantly. But when he lit the second one I told him that Bridget might puke all over their new van if he didn’t stop. That immediately got Pedro on our side and he made Roby stop smoking pronto. I got worried when they stopped at a roadside Almecen for “more drinks” and I told Pedro “no mas cerveca”. Fortunately, it was just a bottle of Fanta so we all drank some orange soda and trundled our way down the road. Despite the typical passing on blind hills that is the Bolivian way the 1 ½ hours to La Paz passed uneventfully, though Roby did make too many comments about how beautiful Bridget is and I concocted a plan to bring the whole show to a stop with a fire extinguisher that was mounted inside the car if it came to that. But we passed through El Alto, a city of 1 million that sits on the bench above La Paz and descended down into the city. They dropped us at the bus station and we all heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Our taxi driver seemed to actually know the city this time and drove us straight to the Hostal Blanquito recommended by Marko. It was full but our driver said that he knew of a good hotel nearby. The Hotel Florida was seven stories of dingy grime and after looking at a room we declined and decided to proceed on foot. Within a few blocks we found the Hotel Sayiri on Manco Kapac just up from the tourist district that was a huge improvement.

La Paz sits in a large bowl about the size of San Francisco with twice the population. Between the street vendors and general crush of humanity I imagine it is a very tame New Dehli or something of the kind.

We spent one day traveling out to Tiwanaku an archeological site near Lake Titicaca that was cool and interesting but not nearly as impressive as El Fuerte near Samaipata. We did laundry, caught some museums, and shopped for small gifts.

Posted by White Buffalo 20:10 Archived in Bolivia Tagged la paz Comments (2)

Lake Titicaca - Copacabana and Bolivia's Hottest Showers

sunny 67 °F

Copacabana July 11 – 13

At 7:30 a.m. a large tourist bus picked us up at our hotel for the 3 ½ hour ride to Copacabana. That should have us arriving sometime late morning but for another 1 ½ negotiating the narrow curvy streets of La Paz in a large bus picking up passengers and then another hour just to reach the out-skirts of El Alto. The ride along the lake was beautiful broken up only by a short ferry ride across a narrow straight in which the bus unloaded and we all took a small water taxi across the strait the bus following on a large makeshift barge powered by an undersized out-board. _DSC4933.jpg
I’m sure that more than one bus hasn’t completed the trip. Copacabana is a lovely town on the south side of the lake and is the first really touristy town we’ve encountered in Bolivia. The upside to that was our accommodations, La Olas is a collection of unique and whimsical cabanas scattered on the hillside above town. Martin, the German proprietor, has great vision and the attention to detail was unlike anything we’d encountered in Bolivia. At $70 a night for the four of us it was a little on the pricey side for Bolivia, but recalling that I’ve paid $85 for a Super 8 on the freeway and that similar digs in the states would run more like $250 to $300 a night we had no complaints. Especially considering the solar water heater on each cabin, Las Olas may have the hottest showers in Bolivia, a huge bonus at 12,000 feet in the Bolivian winter.
After settling into our room we picked up some food for hike the next day to Isla Del Sol, and hiked to the Mirador above town. In the morning we caught a large water Taxi for an 1 ½ boat ride out to the Island. Lake Titicaca is as beautiful as it is huge. Despite crystal clear skies, there is nothing except water to the north and the east side is bounded by the high peaks of the Cordilliera Real. Mount Illampu at more than 6,000 meters dominates the skyline while Huyana Pichu and Ilumani to the south offer distant exclamations.

Isla del Sol is the largest island on the lake at a couple of miles wide and 6 or 7 miles long. With beautiful views of the lake in all directions, the most amazing aspect is the terraces that cover every slope. The Incas believed that Lake Titicaca was the birthplace of civilization and from the look of the ancient terraces they might be right. We made a lazy circuit of the south side of the island returning late afternoon for the boat ride back to Copacabana, and a private hot tub lit by bright southern constellations at Las Olas that night.

The next day we slept in and took a long walk around the northern end of Copacabana to swim in the cold waters of Lake Titicaca. I was the only one that actually swam but Aidan at least got his head under while Bridget only managed to go knee high.

The next morning we caught the bus early for the 4 hour trip to Sorata.

Posted by White Buffalo 20:11 Archived in Bolivia Tagged copacabana Comments (1)

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